The EPA created the Clean Water Act (CWA) in 1972, intending to safeguard bodies of water across the nation. The “Waters of the U.S.” (WOTUS) rule included in the act determines the waterways, but the process by which they are selected was never clearly specified. In April 2014, the EPA created a newly proposed rule to specify WOTUS more clearly. It was ordered May 27 and published in the Federal Register.

“When you look at the final rule, it still seems to broaden the jurisdiction of the EPA,” says Tiffany Dowell Lashmet, an assistant professor and specialist with Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension. “It has the power to pull some water into federal jurisdiction that didn’t use to be there.”

Because of the extreme length of the rule (111,000 words), ranchers find it difficult to believe the EPA is only clarifying the law.

“You have to be in the middle of the desert almost to not be affected by this,” says Glen Cope, a southwest Missouri cattle rancher who has several waterways running through his property. “The EPA has the authority to come in and tell us what we can and cannot do with resources that we’ve used for generations.”

The Senate floor has hosted several arguments concerning this new law. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., says the EPA has “written this rule so broadly, and with so much uncertainty, that it’s not clear if there are any limits on this agency’s power.” Barrasso introduced a bill directing EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to revise the WOTUS rule. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee voted 11-9 to approve it, although it faces long odds in the full Senate.


Shortly after the WOTUS rule was released in May, agriculture industry representatives didn’t hesitate to start opposing the law. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) submitted comments and worked hard to generate uproar against the EPA, and the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) created the “Ditch the Rule” campaign.

“The Ditch the Rule campaign is about letting people know what this set of rules will do to all of us,” says Utah Farm Bureau CEO Randy Parker. “It will adversely affect the farmers and ranchers, which will have a chilling effect on our ability to produce food and fiber, and for consumers it can create additional costs in the grocery store.”

Parker says the significant nexus aspect of the rule can greatly affect ranchers. Ranchers who have stock water ponds that collect runoff can be included in this rule. If snow melts too quickly or a heavy storm causes the pond to overflow and run down a gully that eventually ends in a WOTUS, the EPA can determine a significant nexus. The water that flowed out of the stock pond violated the CWA, which can result in criminal fines, Parker says.

“It’s a regulatory overreach,” Parker says. “This literally and figuratively could regulate every square foot of property that water falls on in America.”

If the new rule becomes law, essential ranching practices will require federal permits on public and private land. The AFBF predicts heavy litigation fees concerning this law.

“It is going to add a lot more bureaucratic red tape just to get everything processed to utilize your own private property,” says NCBA’s vice president of government affairs, Colin Woodall. “That’s a huge problem for us in the cattle industry.”

Even after numerous objections, the EPA has continued to stand behind the rule and is waiting for it to proceed into a law.

“We have an EPA that is running forward regardless of the million-plus comments they received,” Woodall says. “It’s obvious they don’t really care what rural Americans think.”

Lashmet encourages ranchers to stay involved, be aware of what’s going on and contact your representatives.

“There is some political action that is being taken that could come into play,” Lashmet says. “We are no where near the end of the battle over this final rule.”  end mark